Our Schools Can’t Reopen Safely – And That’s On Us

The CDC guidelines for reopening schools are, as the kids say, Problematic.

The guidelines themselves are pretty reasonable. They’re about what you would expect from epidemiologists who spend their lives in offices or labs. They read like the work of people whose life pursuit is understanding how diseases spread in the population and providing guidance to the average citizen as to how to reduce their personal risk.

They are also obviously written by people with no grounding in the realities of running a US public school.

The recommendations themselves are not terrible. Trying to implement them within the context of current US public schools, however, is likely to cause infection hotspots on par with US prisons.

Here are just a few of the places the recommendations fall short.

schools

The CDC recommends that “staff and students should stay home” if they have tested positive for or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Having worked full-time in schools in the past and having coached in public schools for the past five years, I see at least three immediate challenges with this one:

  1. A person can infect others for up to two weeks before they show any symptoms of COVID-19. By the time a kid or teacher spikes a temp, they could have exposed everyone else in the same building.
  2. Parents frequently send their kids to school sick because they don’t have a choice. They cannot take time off work without risking their jobs and they cannot afford an alternate arrangement like daycare. Schools will basically need a quarantine ward for these kids.
  3. There’s already a major substitute teacher shortage in the US. Subs receive about $80 per day and zero benefits. The moment a teacher needs to quarantine for symptoms or exposure to a kid with symptoms, they’re out of action for 14 days. There are not enough subs in the US to cover even one teacher per building being out for 14 days.

There’s an additional problem embedded in relying on substitute teachers, too. Being a contingent workforce, substitutes typically rotate among school buildings and districts. They take whichever job they can get wherever they can get it.

This makes substitutes a major potential vector for the spread of COVID-19. A substitute who picks up the virus in one school won’t show symptoms for about 14 days.

That’s two entire weeks in which a sub could visit a different school every single day, or even multiple schools in a single day (my spouse, a band director, goes to three different buildings each day, for instance).

The CDC recommends schools “teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and increase monitoring to ensure adherence among students and staff.”

By itself, this is a good recommendation. We all benefit from increased handwashing and proper handwashing. It’s a skill everyone, including kids, should learn and practice.

Making this plan work in a school setting, however, poses some challenges that don’t appear in other settings:

  1. School bathrooms are typically not equipped for more than one or two people to wash their hands at a time while also practicing social distancing. A class with 30 kids, where each kid washes their hands for 30 seconds (20 seconds of scrubbing plus 5 on each side to turn water on/off and grab a towel), will need 7.5 to 15 minutes for each handwashing session, plus ten or so minutes on each side to get the kids to the bathroom and settled down again after, and a minute or so per kid to switch out who’s at the sink while maintaining social distancing. This process could take up to an hour – multiple times a day.
  2. Increase monitoring…by whom? Schools are already understaffed. A teacher who takes the kids to the bathroom for handwashing time has to both make sure the kids wash correctly and supervise all the kids either waiting their turn or who have already washed (and are touching God knows what).
  3. School schedules are currently packed as schools scramble to prepare kids for the month or more of standardized testing we put them through each year. Taking an extra hour, or even half an hour, to do handwashing even once per day is time our schools do not have – at least if they want to stay funded.

The CDC recommends “cloth face coverings” be worn.

Again, not a bad idea on its face (no pun intended). Also, probably not an issue among high school students.

But the younger the kids are, the harder this one will be to enforce. Kindergarteners in particular are good at losing normal clothing, like socks and shoes. They are not going to keep a mask on their faces for six hours a day plus the bus ride. They also don’t have the self-awareness or self-control skills yet to refrain from touching their own faces. They just don’t.

Think we don’t have to worry about kids that little catching COVID-19? Think again – not only can they catch it, they are more likely to carry and transmit it without ever showing symptoms.

The CDC recommends that schools “provid[e] adequate supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer…, paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible) and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans.”

To this one, I have only one response: With whose money?

Schools have relied on parents to donate sanitizer, tissues, and disinfectant wipes for decades now, because these items simply are not in a school’s budget. Increased handwashing alone is likely to strain school supply budgets because it will mean more soap and paper towels. Replacing all the trash cans is also an added expense schools haven’t budgeted for.

Normally, I think we could expect parents to rise to this challenge and donate the needed supplies. They generally do, and they know we’re in a crisis here.

The problem is that the market doesn’t have an adequate supply of sanitizer, tissues, disinfectant wipes, and so on. For instance, all the stores around here only allow one purchase of each item per customer per visit, and they still cannot keep these items on the shelves most of the time. (I tried to buy bar soap the other day and there were only two packages left of any variety.)

When families can get their hands on these things, they’ll restock their own homes first, not schools. And that makes sense. Families have a home and people to help keep safe and healthy, too. But it means that there’s no supply left for schools.

And schools are going to need much more of these things than usual, because the CDC also recommends cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces and items several times a day. In a school, that’s pretty much everything in the building.

(Cleaning the entire building multiple times per day will also require an increase in janitorial staff, further increasing the school’s operating budget. Or it will require existing staff to take on cleaning duties, reducing their ability to teach, supervise, plan, and so on.)

The CDC recommends that schools “ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.”

Several problems.

  1. Most school buildings have shared HVAC systems. A school ventilation system that “operates properly” is pushing all the building’s air throughout the entire building – and spreading COVID germs from any one room into all the other rooms. This effectively renders moot the CDC’s recommendation to put students into “cohorts” that can be quarantined altogether if one member gets ill.
  2. The vast majority of schools do not have windows that open. This is especially true in places where air conditioning is a standard feature or has been retrofitted to an older building. Windows that open have long been identified as a safety risk in schools.
  3. Propping doors open is a safety hazard in most schools, because it’s a security risk in both directions – a kid can slip out, or an unauthorized party like a mass shooter can slip in. Some building security systems will not allow the propping of doors without setting off an alarm after a short interval.

It’s worth pointing out the irony here. We have spent years, and millions of dollars, building or retrofitting our schools so that the windows and doors can’t just be thrown open to the breeze, on the grounds that it’s how we’re going to protect kids from mass shooters. Yet now, when the threat is a virus, we find ourselves with buildings that prevent us from doing one of the very things that could help keep those kids safe from lifelong disability or death.

The CDC recommends increasing space between students in classrooms, putting up physical barriers, closing communal spaces, and so on.

Yet again, this is reasonable advice in most situations. But our schools are not equipped for it.

Schools are designed to cram in as many students as is practicable. They’re designed this way to reduce the overhead cost per student of running the building.

Currently, the average school has about 180 square feet per student. Which sounds like more than enough for that six feet of social distancing – until you realize that that’s the total square footage of the average school divided by number of students.

That means it includes spaces like utility rooms, janitor’s closets, loading docks, kitchens, and stairwells. You know, the kinds of places you can’t really put desks.

School buses are also a problem. 

School buses are also on the list of the CDC’s places to increase space between students – but since school bus routes are drawn so as to pack the bus to the brim, the only feasible way to do this is to double or even triple the number of buses available.

A new school bus costs about $50,000. Used buses currently cost less – anywhere from $3,000 up – but if every school district needs buses, those prices will quickly spike, because demand will greatly exceed supply.

Meanwhile, each bus route on average costs a district $37,000 per year to operate, between paying the driver, buying and maintaining the bus, and so on. That means that every route that has to be added in order to socially-distance kids on buses adds $37,000 to the school’s budget – but the per-pupil funding the school receives stays the same, because they added buses but not kids.

Just like the substitute teacher shortage, there’s also a bus driver shortage nationally. My district, for example, had to cut late bus service last year because they could not find even one additional driver to hire to take that route. That’s despite offering competitive pay and benefits.

To bus kids while socially distanced, we’d need an additional thirty bus drivers – and so does every other district this size in the area. Bigger districts will need even more drivers.

If we can’t find even one driver, where are we going to get hundreds of them?

Conclusion: It’s not that the CDC recommendations are bad. It’s that they presuppose a school environment that does not exist.

As I mentioned above, you can tell these guidelines were written by epidemiologists who work in labs or offices. They’re decent epidemiological advice. They’re about what you’d expect to hear from professionals whose life’s work involves helping populations understand how various diseases spread and how to mitigate their own risk.

What these guidelines do not do is account for the realities of most US schools. It’s that missing piece that means these guidelines will fail.

Schools do not have the resources they need to implement these guidelines fully. They just don’t. And that’s on us.


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